As a former businessman who made a few spectacularly bad deals, buyer's remorse is a concept Pierre Karl Péladeau must understand. He experienced it, or should have, following Quebecor's purchase of a huge U.S. printing rival just as the digital revolution was gathering speed. The entire printing operation soon went bankrupt, wiping out a big chunk of Mr. Péladeau's wealth.
Buyer's remorse is now on the minds of many in the Parti Québécois. They thought they had made the deal of the century when Mr. Péladeau became their leader six months ago. So what if he had spent his business career spouting opinions contrary to the PQ's proclaimed social-democratic ethos? He was a star, perceived by the broader public as a winner in life and in love.
Unfortunately for the PQ, its new leader is proving to be a painfully slow learner. Listless in Question Period, lumbering in scrums and sloppy in his public declarations, Mr. Péladeau has plenty of crestfallen Péquistes wondering whether he is simply out of his element. Even newcomers to politics can improve their communications skills with practice and good advisers. But to truly succeed, it usually takes talent, political intuition and discipline. Mr. Péladeau seems short on all three.
It's not the only reason Mr. Péladeau is testing the patience of his PQ caucus colleagues. The new leader has quickly made enemies within the party by settling scores and purging staffers considered insufficiently loyal. The abrasive management style of Mr. Péladeau's chief of staff has alienated MNAs and staffers in a manner reminiscent of how his boss is said to have treated underlings at Quebecor.
This may explain why caucus members were in no rush to jump to Mr. Péladeau's defence last week when he committed the cardinal Péquiste sin of suggesting Quebec's partition was a subject "open for dialogue." The more he blathered on, the deeper the hole he dug. His office later put out a statement clarifying that any dialogue between a sovereign Quebec and First Nations would be based on a respect for Quebec's territorial integrity. But the damage was done.
Only Mr. Péladeau knows what led him to free associate on a principle not even most federalist provincial politicians in
Quebec question. Considering how much the partition debate threatened the peace after the 1995 referendum – eventually leading then PQ premier Lucien Bouchard to pass a law requiring the provincial government to defend Quebec's territorial integrity – it amounted to malpractice for a PQ leader to open this can of worms.
Mr. Péladeau was out of the country during the last partition debate, completing one of the stints in France that would leave gaping holes in his knowledge of current events. It appears he did little to get up to speed on the news back home. He once confided that he read only the business section of most newspapers. If Quebec's political status at all interested him, he did a good job hiding it.
How he went from being the apolitical, anti-union capitalist who represented everything the PQ base rails against to becoming the vessel in which diehard sovereigntists have placed all their hopes remains one of the greater mysteries in life. But he needs to get better at his new profession if he is to avoid the kind of internecine warfare that undermined every PQ leader before him.
He's got time. He isn't the first neophyte party leader to spin his wheels in opposition, utter unknowing comments in public and seem genuinely unready for the job. Another just became Prime Minister. By the time Quebeckers next go to the polls in 2018, the provincial Liberals will have been in power for 13.5 of the previous 15 years. One opposition party has to don the mantle of change. And it doesn't look like the Coalition Avenir Québec is going to be it.
Despite Mr. Péladeau's weak performance, the PQ still holds a large lead over the Liberals among francophone voters, according to a Léger poll released last week. Mr. Péladeau is also the top choice for premier among French-speaking electors, with an eight-percentage-point lead over the man in the job, Philippe Couillard.
But the Liberals have a small overall lead – despite stiff budget cuts, slow job growth and discontent with their handling of public-sector negotiations. If Mr. Péladeau can't rise in these conditions, maybe, as one high-profile Péquiste lamented last week, it's because "he's just not any good at this."